Tag Archives: Long Island

It’s a bird … It’s a plane …

I took this video a few hours ago, just before that brief thunderstorm over Roanoke. This looks like one of those AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes that the military uses, doesn’t it?  (See the dish-shaped radar device atop it.)  It was circling the area.

I remember seeing these in the 1980’s as a kid on Long Island (along with plenty of F-14 “Tomcats” buzzing our neighborhood), because Grumman Aerospace had a major plant out in Calverton.  They actually designed and tested new fighter jets there — which the kids thought was pretty neat.) The AWACS aircraft were the planes that could detect incoming planes or missiles from Russia.  (Nowadays, Senate Republicans would block funding for that sort of thing.)

I suppose this could be a civilian plane … I can only imagine that the radar technology has other applications.  I honestly don’t know.

 

Throwback Thursday: “Sea Monkeys!!!”

Yeah, you know the drill.  “Sea Monkeys” were a complete ripoff, because they were nothing like the charming humanoids featured in the ad below, which most of found towards the back of our comic books in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  They were some variation of “brine shrimp” — tiny crustaceans that looked more like bugs than little nuclear families of smiling mer-men.

I was a little less disappointed than most kids upon receiving my “Sea Monkeys,” and adding water to discover the barely visible creepy-crawlies.  I’d developed an obsessive fascination with all of the oddities advertised in comic books — not to mention those in the fabled Johnson-Smith Company catalog — and my father had patiently endeavored to teach me about false advertising.  (He debunked the legendary “X-Ray Specs” for me, for example, and explained to me that the term “genuine replica” meant that a coin was fake.)

Although he warned me beforehand, Sea Monkeys were something he thought I should also see firsthand, as a learning experience.  So I sent away for them.  (My father might have given me the money; I can’t remember.)  And they were indeed underwhelming, after the kit arrived at my household weeks later.  Rural Long Island had plenty of ponds — I could have just snatched up a bunch of water bugs and brought them home and called them “Sea Monkeys” with equal plausibility.  (I brought home some tadpoles once to discover a #$%^ing terrifying species of water spiders or something had hitchhiked along in the jar.  I arrived at that discovery at night in my room — it was one of those things I didn’t tell my mother about.)

The story of Sea Monkeys gets a hundred times stranger when you read up about their bizarre creator — the dubious “inventor” Harold Braunhut.  He appears to have been some kind of cross between P. T. Barnum and “Jurassic Park’s” John Hammond, along with … maybe a little Richard Spencer?

Braunhut “invented” the infamously nonfunctional “X-Ray Specs” that I mentioned above, for example, along with novelty pet kits like “Crazy Crabs” (they were simple hermit crabs) and “Invisible Goldfish.”  (The latter were less substantive than the “pet rock” of the 1970’s; Braunhut simply sold you an empty fishbowl and fish food.)  He raced motorcycles under the name, “The Green Hornet,” according to his Wikipedia entry, and he turned his home into a wildlife conservation.  And he’d gotten the idea for marketing “Sea Monkeys” from the popularity of ant farms.  (I suppose that makes a strange kind of sense.)  Seriously, the guy’s life was full of weirdness.

He was also a neo-nazi.  And that was especially odd, because … he himself was Jewish.  He even legally changed his name at one point to the more Germanic-sounding Harold von Braunhut to fool his unlikely Aryan pals.  (There are a few interesting articles out there about the man; here’s a great one by Evan Hughes over at The Awl.)

I really want to believe that Braunhut’s (well-documented) involvement with white supremacy groups was one of his many cons.  Surely he was simply trying to swindle them somehow.  He had, after all, sold weapons to the Ku Klux Klan.  Couldn’t he simply be hobnobbing with the Nazis as an undercover inventor trying trick them out of their money?  Why would the marketer of “Invisible Goldfish” be above such a thing?

I’m not sure why I am unconsciously going to such great lengths to exonerate the inventor of “Sea Monkeys.”  After all, he ripped me off when I was nine.  Yet here we are.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Peter Benchley’s “The Deep” and “The Island”

I mentioned these late-1970’s seafaring novels last week — they could be considered the “other” Peter Benchley classics.  Neither “The Deep” nor “The Island” had nearly the broad-based cultural impact of “Jaws,” of course.  But they were still pretty damned good.

I got my hands on the paperbacks in the 1980’s, after my Dad left them lying around the house.  (It’s funny how much of my reading material I inherited from my father or older brother during my formative years.  I wonder how many kids grew up like that and were thus influenced.)  Both books leaned toward being horror-thrillers, as “Jaws” did.

I saw the the 1980 film adaptation of “The Island” on broadcast television when I was in early gradeschool, and it freaked me the hell out.  It’s actually a pretty bizarre tale about a colony of throwbacks who murder modern boatgoers in the manner of 18th Century pirates.  (Check out the trailer below.)  It stars none other than Michael Caine, and also an Australian actress Angela Punch MacGregor.  (If that isn’t a badass Australian name for a lady, I don’t know what is.)

I read the original book when I was older — in some ways, it was even freakier.  There were some weird sexual undercurrents and potty humor that weren’t even necessary for the plot; Benchley was a little more out there than you might gather from the more traditional thriller that “Jaws” was.

“The Deep” was a scuba diving thriller; the book and the 1977 movie filled my adolescent head with ambitions of becoming a professional treasure-hunter.  I remember devoting a lot of thought around age 13 or so to trying to figure out if that was a realistic career aspiration.  (I supposed it all depended on what I found.)  There is a moray eel in the movie, and it is unpleasant.  It prompted me to adopt the neurotic habit of bringing a knife along on the summer snorkeling expeditions behind my friend Brian’s house.

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia informs me that Benchley returned to writing books in the late 1980’s; his last two novels in the early 1990’s sound pretty damn cool.  They’re both seafaring monster stories — “The Beast” and “White Shark.”  The latter even selects its victims from my native Long Island, New York.  Maybe I’ll pick those up this summer.

 

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Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, VA, June 2017 (4)

Pictured is Bushnell Hall at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  I lived here during the 1990-91 school year.  It was a freshman dorm then; I don’t know if that’s still the case.

I arrived here just before my 18th birthday; this was the first place I ever lived away from home.  I have never admitted it until this moment, but I was terrified watching my mother’s car pull away after I unloaded the last of my things.  That terror lasted … two hours?  Three?  After my first dinner with the other Bushnell kids at Seacobeck Dining Hall, Mary Washington College felt goddam perfect.  I never wanted to leave.

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My dorm room was on the bottom floor, second from the right in the picture below.  It was a suite — there were two rooms connected by a small bathroom.  And there were six 18-year-old boys living there — yes, that means three to a room.  Good lord, those were close quarters.  We were awakened twice a week by the BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of the garbage truck reversing to empty a dumpster outside our window.  And this was in a room without air conditioning, in Virginia, where teenagers were experiencing college-level academic stresses for the first time.  I helpfully eased tensions in the suite by playing Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth” 3,043 times.  The other five guys LOVED that.

There were even good-natured jabs connected with the North and the South.  I habitually and dryly referred to one of my suitemates as “South Virginia;” he addressed me just as dryly as “Long Island Piece of Shit,” (or just “L.I.P.S.,” for short).  He also took to calling me “Urban Spillover,” an appellation he derived from one of Dr. Bowen’s “Geography of North America” classes that mentioned Long Island.  For some reason, the latter nickname absolutely felt more pejorative.

Seeing those double white doors beside my room below, and that steep hill in the following photos, will always remind me of my 18th birthday.  A group of first-floor guys and fourth-floor girls had gathered inside that door just after moving in during the August of 1990, before classes started.  A polite debate stirred there about whether opening those doors would set off the fire alarm.  (They were clearly marked “Fire Doors” by an electric sign but … the LIGHT wasn’t on in the sign.  And surely the administration wouldn’t require the guys on my floor to walk up an entire flight to the lobby just to exit the building, right?)

Without a word of warning, one of the first-floor guys spontaneously decided to test this theory by just blasting right through it.  (No, it WASN’T me.)

The fire alarm went off.  Everyone panicked.  The guys and girls all shot down the hill outside Bushnell after the guy who’d triggered the alarm, and we all ran … right off campus.  We didn’t stop running until we’d reached somewhere along William Street, I think.

But not all of us escaped without injury.  One of my roommates was a tall, burly guy from right there in Fredericksburg, and he slipped in the sand and loose gravel that characterized that hill during that long ago August.  I still remember that dull, loud, discordant thump-and-rattle as his body hit the slope, while my own lungs were pounding.  When we reached the spot along William Street where our panic finally subsided, we all turned and gaped at his wound.  One of his legs had become a sepia Monet of sand-encrusted blood.  There were still pebbles clinging there, I’m sure of it.

He took it like a trooper.  I guess … he just walked it off.  And we walked around the ENTIRE town.  We were scared to return to campus, what with images of arrest and expulsion dancing in our teenage minds.  (We all might have overreacted a little.)  So we went on a truly lengthy hot summer trek that circled all of the historic downtown area.  (I think we wound up at Carl’s Ice Cream on Princess Anne Street at some point.)

That was really when I saw the City of Fredericksburg for the first time.  I remember thinking that the South seemed like some other world — or maybe the same world, but 100 years ago.  And I don’t mean that in any negative sense.  It genuinely confused me that this town was called a “city,” but it just seemed idyllic and old fashioned and beautiful.  I’m not sure if the average Fredericksburg resident realizes this, but their city indeed makes an impression on newcomers.

Somewhere along the way, I finally let it slip that the day was my birthday; I think heat exhaustion influenced my usual reticence on the subject.  A couple of the girls stole away to a card store on Caroline Street, I think, and bought a card for me.  My new friends all signed it for me upon our eventual return to Bushnell Hall that day (which was thankfully not occasioned by even a mention of the fire doors).  I went to bed that night thinking that my new friends were a pretty decent group.

Anyway — more on my roommate’s injury … he was a bit of an eccentric guy, and one of his eccentricities was that he did not like to go to the Campus Health Center.  He cleaned his long leg scrape himself, and then … bandaged it with duct tape.  That’s right — duct tape.  He’d apparently brought some along with him as an incoming freshman, just in case of an emergency.  You can’t say it was a needless precaution — here he was, using it in lieu of bandages.

He walked around campus like that for a while.  He looked a lot he was wearing part of an extremely low-budget “Robocop” Halloween costume.  I honestly don’t know what transpired when it came time to remove the duct tape, and I’m not sure I want to.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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This the dorm’s south side.  If you face Bushnell looking north, the southern cap of the rectangular campus will be at your back.  Today, it is is one the last places of the main campus’ 234 acres that remains undeveloped.

I’m not sure if there is any connection here, but there is a large mound of dirt among the trees and ivy that was rumored to be the remains of a Civil War fortification.  It makes sense — that hill commands a view of the city; that’s why I used to go there to have my once-a-day Newport menthol cigarettes around dusk.  And in the Nineteenth Century, before William Street’s more modern buildings were erected, I’ll bet you could see Marye’s Heights and the key sections of Sunken Road where the Battle of Fredericksburg raged.

I chatted with a girl on the steps of Bushnell once who told me she’d spoken with the ghost of a Civil War soldier.  She actually carried on a brief conversation with him.  She re-enacted the exchange after a some urging from me, but I wound up giving her story little credence.  I didn’t exactly believe in ghosts, and she sounded like an actress confused about a role.  (I wasn’t sure why her Confederate soldier would speak with a British accent.)

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Throwback Thursday: the WOR-9 Thanksgiving Monster Movie Marathon!!!

If you were a little kid on Long Island in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, then you remember Channel 9’s annual Thanksgiving monster movie marathon.  Dear God, did I love watching it with my Dad.  It was an EVENT.  I loved it far more than any Thanksgiving turkey — if they played monster movies all day, I think I’d cheerfully just enjoy Cocoa Puffs nonstop in front of the color TV in the family’s living room.

The Holy Trinity of monster movies, of course, consisted of “King Kong” (1933), “Son of Kong” (1933) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949).  It’s a testament to these films’ staying power that they could still appeal to both children and adults roughly a half century after they were made.  Retrospect suggests it was probably a nice little father-son bonding exercise … my Dad was watching me thrill to the same monster action he enjoyed as a boy.  Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen truly blessed my childhood.

The DVD Drive-In website has a neat little nostalgic rundown right here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTuHnzGSNOs

 

 

 

Throwback Thursday: T.S.S. in Middle Island, NY

This “Throwback Thursday” post is one to which only my longtime fellow Long Islanders might relate.  And it’s really more of a bittersweet news item …  I signed onto Facebook the night before last only to see this message from a great old friend from the neighborhood:

“They tore down the old T.S.S. today.”

Yes — that’s “T.S.S.,” as in Times Squares Stores, even though nobody ever called it the latter.  And “T.S.S.” is an appellation that only the 40-and-up-ish crowd would recognize, I think.  Everyone else thinks of it as “the old K-Mart.”  But in the late 70’s and early 80’s, it was a sprawling local family discount store.

I and other Longwood High School kids have a hell of a lot of memories from there.  I remember accompanying my parents there during their shopping expeditions when I was .. maybe the age from Kindergarten through the third grade?

“Warehouse”-type club stores weren’t really a thing back then.  T.S.S.’ immense space was truly impressive to a little boy; it seemed like a world unto itself.  We all remember the toy section — that was where I browsed wistfully through the very first Star Wars figures — I’m talking the original toys released in connection with the 1978 and 1980 films.  I still remember them arrayed along the racks in their original packaging — Lord only knows how much those racks of unopened original toys would be worth today.  I’m also pretty sure that’s where my parents picked up those Micronauts figures I got for Christmas one year.  Come to think of it … I’ll bet the majority of my Christmas presents were bought there.

I also vividly remember the bedding department, for some reason.  I think it’s because I really took a liking to some Charlie Brown bedsheets I saw displayed there.

But more than anything else, I remember the weird entranceway — they sold concession-style drinks and snacks on both sides, the better to appeal to children to beseech their parents.

There’s a neat little blog entry, complete with the store’s original TV commercials,  right here at LongIsland70skid.com:

http://www.longisland70skid.com/tss/

T.S.S. was such a vivid, memorable part of my early childhood that it was pretty damned depressing for me Tuesday to discover its eventual fate.  I’m not talking about the sprawling space being razed.  I’m talking about the goddam dystopian state of disrepair into which the entire commercial property fell.

After some long intervening years during which the space became a K-Mart, the building just went to hell after that doomed chain went as defunct as T.S.S.  Tuesday’s Newsday article, below, should give you the rundown.

And the rundown isn’t pretty.  Over the past decade, it seems that the “hulking eyesore” of a building was the site of squatters, drug users, and encroaching wild plantlife.  If you have fond childhood memories of the store, then do not perform a Google image search for the location, as I did.  It’ll show you a massive, vacant monolith of a building on a vast, overgrown, dangerous looking lot.  It looks frikkin’ postapocalyptic.  And it’ll make you sad.

And if that weren’t enough, a murder victim was found this past Saturday in the woods just next to the site:

“Middle Island vacant K-Mart demolished days after body found,” by Carl MacGowan, Newsday, 4/5/16

They say you can never go home again, huh?